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Once upon a time, there was (or perhaps there wasn't) a man named Prester John.

A good bit more recently than that, your friend and mine, Catherynne M. Valente, wrote a book - the first of three - about Prester John and the kingdom he found when he went looking. Being a book by Catherynne M. Valente, it is beautiful and gorgeous and lush, full of awesome scholarship and heartbreakingly beautiful prose. It tells stories other than John's. It takes place in a part of the world where no one was white, and so neither are the characters you meet. It has creatures - fantastical creatures and people that will excite you when you finally get to read about them.

The book is being released by Night Shade Books. Their website has this to say about their mission:

Night Shade Books is dedicated to publishing quality books from a broad spectrum of genres. Writing that inspires a sense of awe and wonder. Writing that explores the fantastic. Writing that at once challenges and redefines a reader's expectations. These are the guiding principles at Night Shade Books.

This is the proposed cover.

Cat placed the cover up for comment. It's clear to me from her comments that she has discussed some of the problems and they are not listening to her. She already asked them to change the whitewashed characters, knowing her fandom doesn't play that. Their response was to make the woman whose partially disembodied, naked form takes up the background, dark-haired rather than blonde.

The cautious neutrality she's exhibiting toward this cover is nothing like the full-of-squee Cat I remember from the Palimpsest cover post. In my experience, when Cat loves something, she gets Muppet-dance levels of excited about it. After years of hearing her express her passion for the Prester John project, "cautious neutrality" towards the cover is not what I expected - nor comments distancing herself from the cover design by expressly noting she had no input because of the aforesaid not-listening and continued fail.

Despite the 150+ LJ comments on the cover, many of them negative, citing everything from poor cover design, confusing and off-putting fonts, the miniscule size of her name on the cover, the weird perspective on the central figure's hands, the central figure's weird resemblance to China Miéville, the unreadable title, the crowded, busy cover - as far as I know, no further changes are planned.

As you may have guessed by this point, I have read The Habitation of the Blessed. I loved each and every word of it, and it is beautiful and perfect, and when it is in the world, you will love it too, I am almost sure, even if you have to love it in spite of the face its publisher currently seems intent on giving it. This is like going to a High Church christening with a friend who sent her baby in the other car with the relatives, and getting to the altar with her to find that someone has ignored the available gown and instead dressed the hapless infant in a rayon clown suit - nothing about this is appropriate, all of it is horrifying.

I do not understand this. I do not know how you get what is essentially the world's most committed pro bono focus group together, have them tell you things like "Looks too European for a Prester John novel" - "Like a fanmade reprint of some book from fifty years ago" - "[The font choices] make the book look cheap" - and fifty thousand comments complaining that the title and author's name are illegible or difficult to read - and on top of all that "I have to be honest, my first reaction was that this book is about a Boring White Guy with a Magical Exotic Lady Assistant" - I don't know how you read all that and do not whip yourself into a froth of product improvement, I truly do not.

You cannot claim out of one side of your mouth to showcase writing that challenges and redefines reader's expectations, while packaging your product in such a way that it partakes in some of the most depressingly predictable and harmful practices for which your genre and industry is sadly notorious. (Or, more accurately, you can, but it adds "staggering hypocrisy" to the list of unflattering adjective phrases that can justly be applied to this conduct.)

I get upset if something put out there under my imprimatur is less than perfect. But even from a pure bidness perspective, I cannot imagine reading variations on a theme of "Really really terrible" - or even "I love it, but..." and "Meh" - and not wanting to make it better. I would be ashamed of myself if I put a thing to press with people who take a vested interest in the author's work telling me they will be excusing the cover to their friends, or covering it in brown paper before reading it in public, because it's just that unappealing and offensive to them.

Then again, I don't understand anyone who could look at a brand that includes this, this, this and this, read a book that includes blemmyae and panotti and no white people, fully populated with characters of color, written by an author whose last work of this type won the Tiptree and, after stroky-beard meetings, say YOU KNOW WHAT WOULD BE AWESOME? GENERIC MEDIEVAL. WITH WHITE PEOPLE ON THE COVER. LET'S MAKE THE TITLE ILLEGIBLE TOO AND THE WHITE CHICK CAN BE ALL EXOTIC AND STUFF - AND ALSO NAKED. THAT'LL SELL COPIES. LIKEWISE PUTTING THE HUGO-NOMINATED AUTHOR'S NAME IN TINY TYPE ON A BUSY FIELD. WIN! WE HAVE DONE A GOOD JOB TODAY.

That, to me, is the basic definition of a losing formula. Not only does whitewashing perpetuate racism, the people who want the book most are telling NSB, quite loudly, that this cover is the wrong choice for that and all other kinds of reasons, just like the author tried to do, and they are still, apparently, not listening. This is not in line with what they taught me in college about how to successfully sell things, which involves a lot of "listen to customers" and "be responsive to feedback" and "make sure your packaging is attractive to your core base." (What do I know? I'm just a reader...a reader who tends to shy away from books that look like they're about Exotic Othering, Titties and White Heroes In European Fantasyland, when I don't know they're written by people who don't write those kinds of books.) *The action of covering a book full of characters of color with pictures of white people, throwing some mehndi and eyeshadow on one of them, is fully an exercise and manifestation of staggering privilege, not a shrewd decision or anything that "inspires a sense of awe and wonder."

The mehndi lady keeps making me choke out in impotent rage. I've read this book. The one character she could possibly represent is the woman in yellow. The woman in yellow? Has red-brown skin. And wears yellow. And is not running around naked and white covered in mehndi being partially disembodied and in the background behind Prester John like an Exotic Lady Assistant, let me tell you what.

This is infuriating. Everything about this is infuriating - the short shrift given to Cat's name, the slapdash, garish, busy design, the utter lack of congruity between the book and its cover, the way in which the cover represents every trope the book subverts, the gross departure from the look and feel of a Valente novel, the cheap appearance...the fucking whitewashing...it's just bad. I saw my friend saying, over and over, that they weren't listening to her. This is not what I am used to when the newest Valente cover comes out. I expect HOORAY JOY HAPPY from the comments section, not "What is this? What is happening? Why can't I read the title? Why are Jonathan Rhys-Meyers and some white lady who went a little overboard at the MAC counter and the "henna tattoo" shop at the mall running amok in Prester John's kingdom?" It's like a bad dream. It's like they fed this book to the Opposite Machine and put the results on the cover.

I talked to s00j. She will share her own thoughts soon enough about the cover, but she did share this gem from another Strowler friend: "I hate the font. It makes the whole thing look cheap." -Sean-Michael Argo, director. So even people who aren't passionately on a leopard, but know something about design, can see this is the whole cloth from which bad idea jeans are cut.

It may have been then that I decided to write my own Letter - one For Prester John, rather than From him. An e-mail, anyhow. And over the weekend and on into next week, I'd like to encourage you to send an e-mail, too. You can post your e-mail after you send it in comments, if you like, although if you have reviewed an ARC, please don't spoil folk in the comments.

I'm writing a Letter for Prester John, because this book deserves better than this. I hope you will write one too.

I'm not threatening to boycott this book, and unless you must, I hope you won't either, because it is wonderful.

I am explaining to the publisher that I have read this book, and find the cover an utter disappointment. That the cover does not look like a serious work by a serious author. That the confusing, busy design is the kind of thing that makes me put a book down in the bookstore, not look more closely. That it makes very little sense that the author's name is so tiny in proportion to the cover when she is currently getting nominated for and winning all kinds of fancy awards. That whitewashing is deeply wrong, and oppressive, and that this book cover feels like a slap in the face and People Who Will Not Buy A Book With A Person of Color On the Cover Are Not Going to Stay In This Fandom So Why the Fuck Are We Catering To Them When That Is Not What Cat Valente Is About In This World Or Any? That Whitewashing and Unreadable Cover is not only wrong, but is going to hang around their neck like a millstone of failure for a long time. Only without saying fuck. Even once.

I am not making any threats, save that I am aware that these are Night Shade's decisions, not Ms. Valente's, and that I will not encourage anyone I know looking for a publisher to work with Night Shade Books in the future, and that I am likely to continue to discuss this decision in most unfavorable terms for a long time to come.

If you are a writer, and you choose to write to Night Shade, and you feel similarly about the possibility that one day it might be your book full of characters of color with Unrelated White People on the cover, maybe with some incongruous nudity and generic exoticism thrown in, it might not hurt to mention that fact to them.

If you are planning to review The Habitation of the Blessed in your online space - especially if you are one of the people who helped vaunt Palimpsest up to the highest echelon of the genre when the Big Name Publisher fired the publicist responsible for promoting it, which could have doomed it to oblivion - let them know, politely, that their choices have been noted and will likely be the subject of present or future public comment.

If you discuss things like whitewashing and the representation of bodies in your online work and you are going to comment on this latest in a long line of industry failures, tell them so.

If you have a shelf full of Cat Valente books and the thought of putting this one next to them makes you want to start singing "One Of These Things (Is Not Like the Other)" - tell them so. If you are planning to buy copies of this book in the Christmas season and you're going to feel the need to say out loud "They couldn't have made a worse cover if they tried, but the story is amazing" - tell them so. In writing. If you couldn't read the title without looking twice or three times - spill it.

In whatever way this choice is going to affect your behavior, tell them so.

Be specific about the problems - the font, the disappearing author's name, the egregious whitewashing. This is a small press we're dealing with, folks. Ten emails look like twenty. Twenty-five emails look like fifty or a hundred.

E-mail goes to jlassen AT nightshadebooks.com. Damn the Man. Save the Kingdom. "Honey flows in our land, and milk everywhere abounds." See you at Strowlerfest.


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 21st, 2010 11:36 pm (UTC)
Aug. 21st, 2010 11:51 pm (UTC)
Thank you for organizing.

I mean, I am going to buy the book. No question at all. But if I didn't know and trust Cat's handling of medieval lit and of race issues, I might have decided not to bother. I'm a grad student in medieval literature. I've studied Mandeville's Travels (a major source for the Prester John legends) in depth. Hell, I've taught Mandeville's Travels in an undergrad class on monsters... and I put In the Night Garden on the syllabus right under it.

That cover does not say, I know and understand the issues of race, imperialism/colonialism, cultural encounter and cultural constructions of monstrosity surrounding the Prester John mythos. And I know for a fact that Cat does know and understand and use these things, brilliantly.

All that said -- hurrah for Nightshade Books for publishing Prester John. I'm very glad they are publishing it, because it means I get to read it.
Aug. 22nd, 2010 12:17 am (UTC)
And I've sent my letter.
Aug. 22nd, 2010 12:59 am (UTC)
I've got a few Facebook friends that need to see this too. Mind if I link them?
Aug. 22nd, 2010 01:03 am (UTC)
It's public, go for it. If you'd take it to the Cat Valente fan page over there also I'd hug your neck.
Aug. 22nd, 2010 01:45 am (UTC)
Lol. Wow, haven't heard that since last Christmas with the in-laws. (Are you Southern too?)

Good excuse to add the Cat Valente fan page to my facebook anyway. :D
Aug. 22nd, 2010 02:07 am (UTC)
Tooked to the fan page. *hug me arms*
Aug. 22nd, 2010 01:51 am (UTC)
For the same reason that these people, and other companies, when they pay people to tell them whether something is appealing or not-- well, they ignore those too. We are free QA, and as such, are ignored on principle-- in fact, the more angry and bitter we are about this clearly awful design, the more fixed they'll be on it. It's stupid and maddening, and I want to kick them.

That said, long live The Letters!
Aug. 22nd, 2010 06:50 pm (UTC)
I can't speak for anyone but myself, and certainly not for POC. What I can say is that in addition to the insult to Cat and her work, the insult to her fans who care so much, the racism inherent in whitewashed art*, it insults a white male reader like me.
It is offensive to me that publishers repeatedly assume I won't buy a book with a PoC on the cover, or a fully dressed woman.
* I must admit the issue here might not have occurred to me, I'd more likely have noted the font and barely legible name, so thanks for making me aware.
Kev mcveigh
Aug. 23rd, 2010 03:30 pm (UTC)
I was hoping that half naked white lady didn't have mehndi on her hands. HOPING AGAINST HOPE CLEARLY.

Honestly, looking at this book would make me think "ugh. Exoticized eroticized other. A generic rip off of "1001 Nights". YAWN." Not Cat Valente. Which is a prob


Interestingly, the image is no longer up on Amazon.com (though it is still up on Nightshade Books).

I mean, blah. To me the cover is not unattractive. It just looks like a generic orientalist fantasy novel. It looks like it could possibly be a YA fantasy novel. It isn't visually exciting, innovative or interesting. It also gives no hint that the inside of the book will have anything from the POV of non white people.

Edited at 2010-08-23 03:35 pm (UTC)
Aug. 23rd, 2010 04:01 pm (UTC)
I'm sure the illustrator is a very nice person, but what is up with this B grade work on a cover? Are we supposed to relate it to fantasy books from 1983?
Aug. 23rd, 2010 06:55 pm (UTC)

That felt good.
Aug. 23rd, 2010 07:15 pm (UTC)
People are CC'ing me their letters to NSB, bebe. You are awesome. Everyone here is awesome. Mighty, even.
Aug. 23rd, 2010 07:31 pm (UTC)
Heh heh. Mythpunk chevaliers to the rescue.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )

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